Friday, September 17, 2010

Random News Generator- French Guiana

The United States is depressing to look at right now. Let's fire up the Random News Generator and look away, at least for a day.

And certainly nobody looks at French Guiana much, but guess where we've landed today. It's a French territory, the easternmost of those three teeny little countries sitting on top of Brazil. In fact, a suspect in a French spy scandal was reassigned there recently while the government figures out what to do with him. You'd think spy scandals would be intriguing and thrilling, but this particular scandal involves political fundraising, marital infidelity, government agencies used for partisan purposes, and from here it just seems like a whole bunch of stuff I could just stay Stateside and look at every single day.

I fired up the RNG to get AWAY from that. If I could make it, I'd be at the just-announced Rally To Restore Sanity as a message that I'd like to see less of that.

This post is now about Dutch cheese markets. Suck it, French Guiana, for being secondarily related to a scandal I'm sick of hearing about on sight. I am petty like that.

The Netherlands has five cheese markets, in the cities of Alkmaar, Edam, Gouda, Hoorn and Woerden. (Yes, that is where the names of Edam and Gouda cheeses came from; a whole lot of cheeses get their names from their places of origin. Those cities, as you might imagine, feature those cheeses.) A cheese market works roughly like so, at least in the seemingly most popular of the markets in Alkmaar:

The first thing to note is that, while stalls line the periphery, kind of like any farmer's market you've ever been to, the 'traditional' part of the market, dating back to the 14th century, simply places a bunch of cheese wheels on a platform just barely off the ground.

There are men in white outfits and variously-colored straw hats; these people carry and weigh the cheese, using wooden barrows to move it. (What's a barrow? What's a wheelbarrow? Ditch the wheels and you've just about got it.) The colors designate which of four groups, or vemens (singular veem), they're aligned with; this seems to be primarily to split everyone into manageable groups.

The vemen start by arranging the cheese by supplier. They inspect it by knocking on it (to check hardness), scooping out small samples of the cheese, crumbling it, sniffing it, and passing it around the crowd to taste. (This is the crowd's primary function; the traditional method is more a spectator sport these days than anything else, causing some locals to think it something of a tourist trap.)

When a prospective buyer wishes to purchase some cheese, he and the supplier engage in a system called handjeklap- a system in which they clap hands to haggle over the price. Once a price is settled on, a veem takes the cheese and carries it to a weigh station, thereby arriving at a final price.

Here's what handjeklap looks like, in the Edam market:

French Guiana also likely eats a quantity of cheese.

In conclusion, the Rally To Restore Sanity is October 30th on Washington DC's National Mall.

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